Many years ago, I read an essay written by an artist who had worked in the theater. In his writing he pictured a brief, dramatic moment: two generals, leaders of opposing forces yet magnetized by some deep mutual sympathy, are advancing toward each other along the edge of a sword. This vision of the meeting of opposites, the joining of the seemingly irreconcilable, stayed with me and may have been one of the many impressions that eventually led me to aikido.
That early impression found some company recently when I saw a film that showed a group of young Canadian ballet dancers being taught flamenco by two visiting Spaniards. The talented young northerners took to the fiery flamenco moves with enthusiasm and rapidly growing skill, and soon each of the dancers was able to inhabit fully the warrior-like flamenco posture of intense pride, individuality, and self-respect. At the same time, they moved fluidly with each other, connected by deep attention and sensitivity to their own bodies and those of their companions. Once again, there was this paradox of the joining of opposites.
What the dancers were doing seemed not unlike what we try on the mat, where opposing forces also join with strength and intensity within the demanding rhythms of a form. I was reminded that genuine relationship is not limited to any given set of presuppositions and expectations. Though I sometimes think of friendship and reconciliation as dwelling among the milder and gentler phenomena, that may be a limited perspective. In the determined, whole-hearted challenges we give and get in aikido, in the sheer attentiveness that is needed, in our wish that each of us give our best, we may be learning something about true relationship as a dance of opposites that is not without risk.
Mary Stein practices aikido at Suginami Aikikai in San Francisco. Her book The Gift of Danger will be published in August by North Atlantic Books.